For decades, the territory controlled by ethnic Wa rebels in northeastern Myanmar has been shrouded in secrecy, zealously protected by its military and political leaders.
But the state, which, while not officially recognized, does enjoy de facto autonomy, is starting to open up to outsiders, displaying a surprising level prosperity, largely thanks to the trade of illegal drugs and gambling.
In the 30 years since its inception, the United Wa State Army has managed the most powerful guerrilla force in Myanmar, controlling an area the size of Belgium along the Chinese border, boasting infrastructure that is the envy of many other parts of the unsettled country.
Entering the mountains of “Wa State” means leaving behind a dilapidated road full of potholes – a common sight on Myanmar’s road network – for a smooth eight-lane tarmac highway lined with rubber-tree plantations.
It is an open secret that the region’s wealth comes from the production of heroin in the 1990s – when Myanmar was the world's biggest producer of the drug – and later of methamphetamine, leading the UWSA to be considered as one of the world’s most powerful so-called “narco-armies."
But since Myanmar ended five decades of military dictatorship and started transitioning to democracy in 2011, the UWSA has tried to clean up its image, claiming that it has been actively fighting against the production and distribution of illicit narcotics, while looking to steer its economy towards legal cash crops.
The center of this local economy is Pangkham, a city of around 350,000 people on the banks of the river Nam Hka, just over the border from China’s southern Yunnan province.
Unlike most cities in Myanmar, Pangkham has well-paved streets and a relatively developed infrastructure, a fact that impressed visitors during the UWSA anniversary celebrations earlier this month.
“I came six years ago and it has changed a lot. It is the best city in the whole of Shan (the officially recognized state surrounding Wa). I am sorry that my family missed this, they should see it,” Tien Rien, a 27-year-old who came from the city of Tangyan to attend the celebrations, told EFE.
Local leaders worked hard to present the best possible image of the city for the event, closing many brothels, casinos and markets where protected animal species are sold – attractions which draw wealthy Chinese tourists who are barred from freely enjoying such activities at home.
Residents of Pangkham told EFE that authorities had driven out the drug addicts that usually roam the city’s streets, which were heavily patrolled by police officers during the celebrations.
While there has been a crackdown on narcotics, gambling was left unrestrained; hundreds were seen frequenting the grand casino in the center of town, while many locals took to the streets to play dice or ping-pong.
The most common currency in Pangkham is the Chinese yuan rather than Myanmar’s official kyat, and the names of shops and hotels are displayed in three languages – Chinese, Burmese and Wa – while the majority of locals use Chinese mobile phone networks.
The education system in Pangkham is another area in which it differs from the rest of Myanmar: there is only one secondary school in the state with 300 students, as the majority of the children study at centers opened and run by the United Wa State Party – the political wing of the UWSA – where they are taught in Wa and Chinese.
These factors demonstrate the region’s proximity to its giant neighbor. But the link is not only anecdotal or cultural: the Chinese government has long backed the UWSA to have a reliable ally inside Myanmar, say experts.
Despite the obvious Chinese influence, the Wa people maintain many of their ethnic traditions, some inherited from their animist past, such as the religious sacrifices of buffaloes – a sacred animal that is the symbol of the State; buffalo horns adorn the walls of all local party and military buildings.
The Wa, a tribe indigenous to the mountains of northern Myanmar who were once considered some of the most primitive people in the world for their reputation as head-hunters, managed to stay independent during the colonial period when the rest of the country was under the yoke of the British Empire.
The UWSA emerged in 1989 from the remains of the armed wing of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) when Wa ethnic soldiers and other minorities rebelled against leaders of the Bamar ethnicity, forcing the latter to flee to China and seizing the weapons that the CPB left behind.
Soon after, the UWSA signed a ceasefire with the military junta, and since then has been able to grow into a territory with a population of nearly one million, which was recognized by Naypyidaw as a "self-administered division” in 2008.
On Apr. 17, the UWSA held a military parade to mark its 30th anniversary, using the occasion to display its military force, which includes around 25,000 regular soldiers and 15,000 reserves, heavy artillery and even military drones, equipment and arsenal of which other rebel groups in Myanmar could only dream.
Despite this obvious military might, local political leaders insist that the central Naypyidaw government is not the target.
“We have built our military to protect our people, not to attack the government,” the UWSP's vice president said.
The challenge for the people of Wa, who have come a long way from being viewed as unsophisticated head-hunters, will be to reconcile the state’s fierce sense of autonomy and independence with the inevitable wave of modernization, as Myanmar continues its transition from isolated military dictatorship to a democracy that is increasingly engaged with the wider world.